Where have all the great human beings gone?

Who can rival the great individuals of the 1950s?
Who can rival the great individuals of the 1950s?

A favourite game of mine is to ask people to name as many great living human beings as they can.

A favourite little game of mine is to ask people to name as many great human beings, alive at the present moment, as they can.

“How are we defining great, Graham?”

“Someone who makes a significant mark in any field of human endeavour, not excluding an evil one, that will still be having an effect on the world in 50 or 100 years.”

Puzzled frowns of concentration. Younger respondents, confusing greatness with celebrity, wealth or social-media trendiness, tend to shoot off names of pop stars, footballers, dot-com millionaires, or television personalities. “No, I wasn’t thinking in terms of Madonna, Maradona, Steven Jobs, or Stephen Fry.” Older folk tend to look thoughtful.

“Well, the Dalai Lama, surely,” someone suggests. “And what about this new pope? The first for a while to give the impression of actually being a Christian.” I nod: interesting that two religious leaders tend to be early nominations.

“Any political leaders?” I ask. More furrowed brows. “Mandela’s gone. Thatcher’s gone. Possibly Gorbachev; possibly that crook Putin.” “Any Americans?” “Obama looked good when he was elected, but what has he achieved since, really?”

“Are there any great writers around?” Everyone looks blank. “García Márquez has gone. Solzhenitsyn’s gone.” “Any great artists, then?” “Maybe that Chinese conceptual chappie, Ai Weiwei, who did that thing with all those whatsits at Tate Modern. Hockney? Damien Hirst, over my dead body!” “Musicians?” “Er, Barenboim, Brendel, I suppose, dear old Macca, possibly Jagger?” “Scientists?” “Stephen Hawking, of course.”

“What about the Chinese? A rising nation with a population of over a billion, nearly a fifth of all humans alive. Can you name any great Chinese, apart from Ai Weiwei?” Silence. “Can you name any other Chinese at all?” Silence.

Well, you get the drift. One might be able to rustle up a list of six or eight greatish human beings currently living. There will be some bickering about whether Bill Gates, or Aung San Suu Kyi, or Angela Merkel, or Archbishop Tutu should make it. There will be few absolutely indisputable human giants in it. None who “bestride the narrow world like a colossus”.

Now, wind back to 1950, say, and make a similar list of who was around then. Here’s one I compiled earlier: Auden, Bergman, Borges, Callas, Camus, Casals, Chaplin, Churchill, Dalí, de Gaulle, Einstein, Eisenhower, Eliot, Fellini, Garbo, Gide, Hammarskjöld, Heifetz, Hemingway, Hitchcock, Jung, Kennedy, King, Le Corbusier, Mann, Mao, Menuhin, Monroe, Montgomery, Nasser, Nehru, Nijinksy, Olivier, Oppenheimer, Pasternak, Picasso, Presley, Prokofiev, Rubinstein, Russell, Sartre, Schweitzer, Shaw, Stalin, Steinbeck, Stravinsky, Teresa, Tito, Toscanini, Wittgenstein.

All these 50 were alive in 1950. All towering figures who changed the world - admittedly not always for the better. One could probably think of 50 more.

So what has happened? Is modern society - with its emphasis on social equality, its stifling bureaucracy and safety rules, its satirical tendency to cut down anyone who stands tall - inimical to the production of greatness? Is it that the phenomenon of greatness has been replaced by that of shallow celebrity - something that scarcely existed back then - so that, instead of 50 or 100 greats, we now have untold thousands of ephemeral minor talents?

Or is it - a pet theory of mine - that as populations explode, so human extremes contract into a uniform mediocrity? All the great historical centres of human achievement - ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan London, Goethe’s Weimar - had tiny populations by modern standards, whereas our vast megalopolises teem with ants.

I leave you to ponder this enigma.